'The Nightingale' Review: Jennifer Kent's Revenge Drama Is Unrelentingly Cruel, Yet Essential Viewing [Sundance]

How much brutality can you take from a movie? How much is too much? How many scenes of pain, suffering and bloodletting can you stand before you throw up your hands and cry uncle? With The Nightingale, her follow-up to the horror hit The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent seems to posing those direct questions to the audience. The filmmaker knows that we, as a species, have a thirst for violence. But that thirst has its limits. Kent wants to push beyond those limits, and then keep going. And then go further. And then ask, "Isn't this what you wanted? Why so squeamish now?" As an experiment, it's fascinating. As a film, it's almost too much to stand.While there's almost non-stop horror in The Nightingale, this revenge-drama is far, far removed from Kent's Babadook. In 1820s Tasmania, young Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) has served her time, and wants nothing more than to be freed by her master, the monstrous Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) so that she can start her life over with her husband and infant. But the sadistic Hawkins has no intention of letting the young woman go. Tensions boil over, Clare's husband attempts to retaliate, and things go horribly, horribly wrong, resulting in the first of many brutal, shocking scenes meticulously designed by Kent to suck the air out of the room.Consumed with rage, Clare sets off to track Hawkins and his men down to enact revenge. To help her navigate the land, she reluctantly enlists Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). The two do not get along, primarily due to Clare's racism and Billy's understandable resentment of colonizers. But along the way, the duo begin to grow attached to each other, and an uneasy friendship blossoms. And thank heavens for that, because without the emotional attachment between Clare and Billy, The Nightingale would be nothing but two-plus hours of misery.How does one even begin to approach a film like this? It's not that this type of subject matter hasn't been tackled on screen before. In many ways, The Nightingale feels like a combination of the rape-and-revenge exploitation horror film I Spit on Your Grave crossed with Jim Jarmusch's anti-Western Dead Man, with a little of The Revenant thrown in for good measure. But Kent's attention to the brutality and violence is so precise, and so sickening, that it begins to wear you down.This is, of course, a design, not a flaw. Much like the recent You Were Never Really Here, Kent is intentionally denying us the catharsis we come to expect from revenge-driven films. She's asking us why we're so bloodthirsty; why we take such pleasure in violent acts. "I wanted to tell a story about violence," the director says in the press notes for The Nightingale. "In particular, the fallout of violence from a feminine perspective." Clare is our heroine, and thus our prime focus, but she's not entirely the main character. The movie is just as much about Billy, a native being cruelly attacked by men trying to claim his land as their own. Franciosi and Ganambarr are incredible together, and watching the bond the pair form over the course of the film is remarkable in its honesty. Kent's script doesn't cut corners – it instead allows the characters to grow accustomed to each other, to the point where Clare's plight becomes Billy's, and vice versa.On the opposite end of the spectrum is Claflin, as the consistently cruel Hawkins. This is a tricky character, because Claflin has to portray him as both someone with zero redeeming qualities who also thinks he's entirely justified in his actions. It's a tightrope act – in Hawkins' mind, the violence he enacts towards Clare, Billy and others is perfectly natural, because he's superior to them. The actor nails this, but the character is so loathsome that he occasionally borders on cartoonish.

In stark contrast to all this horror is the often breathtaking cinematography from Radek Ladczuk, capturing the landscape (shot on location in Tasmania) in quiet, beautiful ways. The clash between the beauty of nature and the ugliness of humanity has never been more stark. The very final shot in particular, set on a beach as the sun comes slowly up out of the sea slow fire, is stunning.

The Nightingale might be the most difficult film you will watch all year, and I can foresee its non-stop brutality turning off droves of viewers. But Kent is such a strong, unique filmmaker that those willing to go along with her on this long, cruel journey will find a kind of beauty lurking deep beneath all the pain and suffering. Kent wants to challenge us, and sometimes, we as a filmgoers should be challenged. To complete ignore difficult art such as this is to do ourselves a disservice. Will you enjoy The Nightingale? I really don't know. But I guarantee you'll never forget it./Film Rating: 8 out of 10